Myanmar’s record on media freedom has deteriorated dramatically over the past year.

Hours after the army toppled Myanmar’s democratically elected government in February, the junta sought to control access to information, shutting down the internet and blocking social media sites.

From there, broadcasters’ licenses were revoked, journalists were arrested, and in December at least two media workers were killed: photojournalist Soe Naing, who died in military custody, and Sai Win Aung, who was killed while covering the fighting in the Myawadaddy district of the country, near the Thai border.

Myanmar entered 2020 without any journalists behind bars. In March, the junta arrested dozens of journalists, including Thein Zaw, who works for the Associated Press, and freelance journalist Robert Bociaga.

PA journalist Thein Zaw, center, beckons outside Insein prison after his release on March 24, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar. Thein Zaw was arrested last month while covering a protest against the coup in Myanmar.

Lamentable year

Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said 2021 has been one of the worst years for the media.

“I can say that last year was the most oppressive year against independent media in Myanmar.

He noted how journalists have been targeted along with those who refuse to accept military rule. “The junta has used a wide range of actions against activists, journalists and armed fighters, the worst is to accuse them of anti-terrorism charges.”

“What I [expect] in a new year will not be a different environment, [not a] release from the military iron grip, I’m afraid the restriction will be imposed on a new front: social media by building firewalls similar to China’s, ”Aung Thu Nyein added.

Win Zaw Naing, editor of the independent news site Red News Agency, told VOA that “journalists are now being targeted, arrested and prosecuted.”

Yet the official message from army spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun was that the military “respects and values ​​freedom of the media” and has only arrested journalists who incite unrest.

As of December, at least 26 were currently detained, and many more were arrested and later released during the year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Most of those arrested are charged under Section 505A, a new provision in Myanmar’s Penal Code which criminalizes “causing fear, spreading false information or inciting crimes against the government”.

Infamous reputation

Many journalists have been held in Insein Prison in Yangon, whose rights groups are known to suffer inhuman conditions and treatment. Journalists like Yuki Kitazumi from Japan, who was detained for a month, told VOA about incidents of torture of detainees.

Most of the political prisoners were tortured in the military compound, [the] military institute, “where fellow inmates suffered abuse while blindfolded throughout admission interrogations,” Kitazumi said.

“A man was asked to choose: a knife or a gun?” Kitazumi spoke about interrogation techniques used by the military.

And US journalist Nathan Maung, who was detained for nearly 100 days in Insein, says his captors initially blindfolded him, provided no food or water for days, and beat him while the journalist was confined to a chair.

Maung was the first of two American journalists to be arrested. Frontier Now editor Danny Fenster was arrested in May as he was about to board a plane back to his hometown of Detroit, Michigan.

Fenster has been accused of working for Myanmar Now, a media banned by the junta. While previously working for the news site, Fenster had resigned months before the coup.

Despite this, he was later sentenced to 11 years in prison, before finally being released and deported in November.

Fenster’s arrest served as a warning to other journalists, according to political analysts and experts who spoke to VOA.

Work in exile

With the risk of arrest increasing, some like Mratt Kyaw Thaw have decided to go into exile. The 31-year-old won AFP’s Kate Webb Award in 2017 for his coverage of the Rohingya genocide. But fast forward to 2021, he was wanted by the military.

Mratt Kyaw Thaw said the junta quickly denounced his work.

“I think on February 12 they broke my name as fake news,” he told VOA.

When his name was announced on public radio after interviewing a defected military general, Mratt Kyaw Thaw decided to leave. He left Yangon and was eventually able to enter Spain as an asylum seeker. He told VOA in June: “I am a fugitive forever.”

For many journalists, reporting on the ground had become untenable. Several outlets have suspended their activities or have started working since their exile.

One of them is the Democratic Voice of Burma, or DVB.

Exiled Burmese founded DVB in 2005, the broadcaster providing unfiltered news and information about Myanmar. In 2012, DVB slowly returned to Myanmar before being banned by the military this year. It is now managed in Oslo, Norway, and Chiang Mai, Thailand.

DVB’s editorial director Aye Chan Naing said they would continue to report despite obstacles.

“Because this situation is nothing new, we have done it from exile for the last 20 years, until we moved to Yangon in 2012, for us it is nothing really special, but we have to take the risk, as in the past. “

The editor, however, admitted that the broadcaster is now decentralized and relies on citizen journalists because of the risks for reporters.

“Being a freelance journalist is already a ticket to getting arrested,” said Aye Chan Naing.

Downward spiral

Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Burma border, highlighted the five-media ban in March as a watershed moment for Myanmar’s media decline.

“Since then, more and more people have been banned, more and more journalists have been arrested, and it’s been a downhill, progressively more difficult, month by month since then,” Kean said.

Its own publication has ceased its print edition and temporarily suspended its website due to uncertainty in the country.

A Burmese journalist, known as Cape Diamond, believes the junta is cracking down on journalists because they are afraid of the media.

“The junta knows how important journalism is, which is why it oppresses journalists as much as it can.”

But as Myanmar enters its second year of military rule, Aung Thu Nyein said the future remains bleak for the country’s media.

“I think the military will not loosen its grip before its proposed election in 2023. I fear the restriction will be imposed on a new front – social media, by building firewalls similar to China’s.”